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Meet Our Staff

WEDI is composed of ambitious, dedicated, and passionate individuals who firmly believe in the mission of the organization, in the potential of the people who utilize our services, and that WEDI's work can truly impact the community in a positive way. Learn more about the WEDI team and what they bring to the organization. And if you want to join us, check out our employment opportunities.

Ben Bissell | Executive Director  

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 Prior to joining our organization, Ben lived in Russia and was also fortunate enough to visit over 20 countries. Ben decided to work for WEDI because he believes that the foundation to community development lies in wise economic and educational development, where organizations empower economically disadvantaged communities by providing access to the precise resources necessary for improvement. Ben is quick to affirm that WEDI embodies his core values by providing individuals with a chance to own their own business and the capital to do so, while educating the next generation and providing cultural experiences through projects like the West Side Bazaar. He believes that WEDI is innovative and willing to take risks to achieve what some might consider impossible.

In addition to studying City and Regional Planning with a focus on International and Economic Development at the graduate level at Cornell University, Ben received a B. A. in Urban and Regional Analysis and Planning from Buffalo State College. He also worked for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, the Mayor’s Business/Residential Resource Center, Buffalo State College, and Wegmans.

Ben believes society will improve when people come together to make it happen and furthermore looks forward to a day when our community will be self-sufficient. He hopes that one day, other financial institutions in our neighborhood will be able to provide capital to people who, thanks to WEDI’s efforts, will no longer be considered “risky” clients. Ben also looks forward to a day when local schools will tailor their curriculum to every student, and particularly provide adequate educational opportunity to English Language Learners. Last but not least, he hopes to see a society where cultural variances are embraced and celebrated by everyone in society.

Dave Chambers | Economic Development Specialist

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 An international business lawyer for 35 years, David took on the role of Economic Development Specialist with WEDI in 2016.  In addition to serving as senior Counsel to several global corporations, David has been intensely involved with Western New York economic development initiatives, serving on the Board of Directors of Erie County Economic Development Agency; and as the chief of Economic Development Policy for the Erie County (New York) Executive, among other positions.  A graduate of the University at Buffalo and The Cornell Law School, David brings with him a continuing passion for the resurgence of Western New York and its diverse and wonderful communities. 

Cody Clement-Sanders | Project Manager

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Cody is new to our staff! Stay tuned!

Meg Cook | Project Manager

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 Meg is originally from Syracuse, NY and currently serves as Project Manager through the AmeriCorps VISTA program. After graduating from Canisius College with a Bachelor’s of Science in Marketing, she worked for the Elmwood Village Association as the Member Engagement Coordinator. Meg serves the organization in many capacities including volunteer management, West Side Bazaar takeout program improvement, and marketing leadership. Meg looks forward to expanding program resources and supporting WEDI’s mission of empowerment.

Bryana DiFonzo | Community Development Director

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 Bryana joined the WEDI team in 2017 after seven years of community development work with key organizations such as the Buffalo Region Immigrant and Refugee Roundtable, Young Nonprofit Professionals Network Greater Buffalo chapter, Allies for a Greater United Buffalo, and Journey’s End Refugee Services. In addition to a Bachelor’s in History and English, Bryana has earned her Masters in Business Administration (MBA) from the University at Buffalo, a Certification in Volunteer Administration (CVA), and has certifications in Nonprofit Board Leadership and Six Sigma. Bryana is a passionate volunteer who gives her time to several community organizations, including serving as a board member for Grassroots Gardens for over four years. At WEDI, Bryana leads Community Development efforts: supervising the West Side Bazaar Manager and efforts to explore expansion, supporting the Economic Development staff, and building organizational capacity through her nonprofit management experience and the work of the VISTA members she supervises.

Bob Doyle | West Side Bazaar Operations Manager

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 Bob is a lifelong Buffalonian excited to take on a new role as Operations Manager at the West Side Bazaar. He holds undergraduate and graduate degrees from SUNY Buffalo, and has spent over a decade working in restaurants and nonprofits in Buffalo. Bob loves traveling, cooking, gardening, eating, and learning new languages. In addition to his native English he speaks fluent Italian, as well as conversational Spanish and French. 

 

 

Julia Gartman | Operations and Accounting Specialist

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 Julia Gartman graduated from Houghton College in 2016, culminating her studies with a senior capstone that evaluated financial inclusion in Trinidad and Tobago. During her time at Houghton, she spent three months in Tanzania studying human ecology, Swahili, biology, and culture. Her intercultural experiences have led her to care deeply about refugee issues. She has actively engaged this population since 2013 through ESL, citizenship teaching, and currently assistant coaching the FLY soccer team. 

Jody Harvey | Development Director

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 Jody received a B.A. in Sociology from SUNY College at Fredonia. She began her career in the corporate world immediately out of college and then made the decision to move to the non-profit world. Jody became a CFRE (Certified Fund Raising Executive) in December of 2003, is a member of WNY AFP since 1986 and is a graduate of the Leadership Buffalo class of 2006. Jody has worked in a variety of human service and education organizations as well as the Department of Health & Human Services reviewing, evaluating and grading federal grant applications.

Michelle Holler | Marketing and Business Development Manager

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 Before the Buffalo native joined WEDI, she attended Buffalo State College and studied fashion textile technology with a concentration in marketing. Michelle worked as a waitress at Cole’s on Elmwood Ave. and as a social media and events intern at a non-profit organization called Give for Greatness. Michelle is a passionate volunteer who gives her time to several community organizations including a committee member for Grant Ferry Association and a volunteer with WEDI's after school program ENERGY. 

One of Michelle’s greatest passions is exploring other cultures; Michelle traveled to 17 different countries on 4 separate continents by age 26, including studying in Florence, Italy. Over the years, Michelle has learned that she can work with people from all over the globe and use the experience gained from previous jobs to help folks in the city of Buffalo.

Manon Jokaleu | Microenterprise Collaborative Manager

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 Manon graduated University at Buffalo, SUNY in 2011 with a master's degree in Urban Planning, Economic and International Development. He decided to work with AmeriCorps/VISTA at WEDI & the Foundry as Collaborative Development Manager, in supporting low-income community in economic growth and empowers individuals. He worked with Winrock International Bridge Program/USAID as a Governance Project Officer with Local government in the capacity building project in 2012, South Sudan.  Worked with Journey's End Refugee Services Inc., as Case Manager, 2007. Founder and CEO of the New Site Global Network Online platform in 2015. The former state minister of local Government, 2015 in Lol State, South Sudan.

Sharmila Kulasekaram | Monitoring and Evaluation Manager

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 Sharmila has business, project management and consulting experience supporting and implementing projects in diverse industries such as Oracle Corporation, Dell, HP, M&T, and HSBC. She graduated with honors from Western Michigan University with a B.B.A in Computer Information Systems and Business from the Haworth School of Business. She adopts the words of physicist Albert Einstein "learning is not a product of schooling but the attempt to acquire it"  and is a member of the Project Management Institute (PMI). She was raised in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, speaks multiple languages, and is passionate about water conservation and supporting global efforts for endangered species such as the Orangutan at the Sabah Sepilok Rehabilitation Center in the rain forests of Malaysia.

James Lewis | West Side Bazaar Assistant

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 James is in charge of cleaning and day-to-day maintenance at the West Side Bazaar. Apart from offering his much-needed services at the Bazaar, he owns a cleaning business that specializes in floor care. James is an active member of Miracle Missions Full Gospel Church, where his father is the senior pastor.

Bethany Ortquist | FLY Coordinator

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 Bethany moved to Buffalo after graduating from Houghton College. Inspired by her studies abroad in Africa and Europe, she was motivated to work with people from different cultures and backgrounds.

She served as an AmeriCorps member at the Massachusetts Avenue Project for a summer before completing two AmeriCorps terms at the FLY Program. Bethany is passionate about working with the students at FLY because many of them are her neighbors and fellow community members on the West Side of Buffalo. She lives in a cooperative house with seven friends, where she enjoys gardening, bee-keeping, and raising chickens.

Esperance (Hope) Rwigamba | Economic Development Specialist

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 Esperance is originally from Rwanda and came to the United States in 2005. Back in her country, she worked as a small loans consultant at a local bank and as a supervisor of Save the Children, an organization whose sole focus was to support orphans and single parents. She has a B.A. in Business Administration from Medaille College and completed her Master’s degree in Public Administration at Buffalo State College in 2015. Esperance currently serves as WEDI’s Economic Development Specialist and enjoys seeing local businesses that are supported by WEDI become even more successful.

Yanush Sanmugaraja | Economic Development Director

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 Yanush graduated from State University of New York Geneseo with a dual degree in Economics and Sociology in 2016. Before being hired as program director, he served as a WEDI Economic Development Specialist through AmeriCorps, utilizing his experiences in technology, development, and design. When Yanush was 12, he built an online, self-sustaining community for teenagers, which operates on its own to this day. Yanush is dedicated to the mission of the organization and is excited to assist blossoming businesses.

Alyssa Wojciechowski | ENERGY Program Coordinator

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 Alyssa graduated from the University of Rochester with a B.A. in Linguistics.  After instructing adult refugee English Language Learners on the West Side for two years, she decided to ride her bike across the country. She continued to teach Pre-Employment Training classes to adult refugee populations in the Pacific Northwest at Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization, but soon realized that there is no place like home and returned to Buffalo to pursue a humanitarian career, completing a year of service as an AmeriCorps member with Habitat for Humanity Buffalo.  She began volunteering at the ENERGY Literacy for Children program in 2016, and after working for a year as Program Assistant, now happily helps the ENERGY students improve their reading and writing skills as the Program Coordinator.

Raisa Dibble | Economic Development Specialist 

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AmeriCorps volunteers supported significantly by: